In a recent radio documentary for the BBC, journalist Shahzeb Jillani discussed Pakistan and its own tryst with a post-partition future, highlighting the fault-lines, founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah's contested vision and a generation still shaken from what happened in August 1947, as India was divided into two. Here, the narrator introduces us to one Fakhrah Hassan, who is working on an oral history project on the partition period.
Hassan narrates how she developed a phobia of railway stations and platforms after coming to know of the atrocities that had been committed at these spaces. Railway lines in general, during what was one of the world's largest human migrations in 1947, had become scenes of riots, killings and massacres with "blood-stained" coaches pulling up at stations across India and the newly formed Pakistan. "Trains were dripping with blood, dead bodies were all across the platforms and people roamed around with swords," says Hassan.
In August 1947, my grandfather was in training at the Mari Indus station in his native Mianwali district of the then undivided state of Punjab.
While a lot has been written on the partition period, chronicled with painful details, not much has been told about the people operating these trains, and what their reactions, horrors, reliefs and stories were. The railways, in many ways, still remains a lifeline for India at least, and some argue that it has played a pivotal role in keeping an intensely diverse and at times implosive nation together.
My late grandfather hailed from a village called Kundal on the banks of the Indus River, an area largely populated by Pashtuns in what is now modern Pakistan. My grandfather, by my late grandmother's recollection, wore very similar attire to that of the Pashtuns—long Pathani kurtas and a chitrali hat. Life was well integrated between communities in the region. Partition changed all of that.
During the mid-1940s, as citizens started to get a whiff of what was coming, with an invigorated independence movement and a post-WWII depleted Britain struggling to hang on, people started to make arrangements. My grandfather at this time was a trainee in the railways, and working to become a guard in the break van stationed at the end of a train, a job from which he would retire 34 years later in India.
As the mob started to comb through the passenger compartments, the trainer acted fast. He told my grandfather to wear a topi (cap), gave him a Muslim name to go by ...
In August 1947, my grandfather was in training at the Mari Indus station in his native Mianwali district of the then undivided state of Punjab. Mari was home to a crisscrossing network of narrow-gauge trains, and a medium-sized base to British-made GS-68 locomotives, a workhorse made in the early 1920s Scotland to pull freight and passenger cars. At this point, tensions were palpable, and everyone knew that a redrawing of boundaries was on the horizon. Sensing this, my grandfather had quietly moved his family to Mathura in Uttar Pradesh using his railway connections. But he went back to fulfill his duty, and continued to work despite knowing the dangers.
As he went on about his day, working in the break van at the end of the passenger train bound for Ferozpur on the banks of the Sutlej River, the station came under attack by a violent mob armed with swords looking for Hindus and Sikhs on board. My grandfather's trainer, a Muslim man (whose name escaped my grandfather decades later when he recounted this story), instantly realised what was happening. And he put himself at risk to save my grandfather, who was just in his early to mid 20s.
As he spoke with the would-be assailants, the trainer realised that my grandfather's railway trunk was still visible, with his Hindu name painted across it.
As the mob took over the station and started to comb through the passenger compartments, the trainer acted fast. He told my grandfather to wear a topi (cap), gave him a Muslim name to go by, and told him to not look up from the railway register and just scribble something in until the situation was handled. The mob leader came up to the break van and loudly banged on it with his fist, summoning the trainer, announcing that they had heard a Hindu was also working on this shift. The trainer, blocking the entry, said that their information was wrong and that the Hindu trainee had not shown up. He pointed towards my grandfather, and addressed him with his Muslim pseudonym, to which my grandfather replied with an "assalam alaikum."
However, he'd forgotten one thing. As part of working for the railways, employees always got an aluminium trunk to keep their belongings. This trunk had their name written across it.
As he spoke with the would-be assailants, the trainer realised that my grandfather's railway trunk was still visible, with his Hindu name painted across it. He knew if the mob saw it, blood would be spilled. The trainer kept the mob leader engaged, and during this continued conversation, successfully kicked the trunk sideward as subtly as he could so that the name was no longer visible. Convinced by the trainer's story, the mob left that part of the train, sparing my grandfather's life, thinking he was a Muslim. However, to double check, some of them returned to the break van minutes later, to make sure the trainee guard was indeed a Muslim. Once again, the trainer, successfully warded off the mob as my grandfather, as per instructions, kept his head buried in the large railways register, scribbling. It was later found that many Hindus and Sikhs on that train were killed—yet another horrific chapter of the bloody history of the partition period where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and many other communities lost hundreds and thousands of their own, and of each other.
My grandfather rarely spoke of that period, and when he did it was only when he was prodded by his grandkids. He was a man who never delved too much into the past. He always, without fail, looked forward, a critical life lesson he left behind for all of us in the family. Yet this story— a small triumph between two humans amidst an ocean of darkness—deserves a retelling.